Functional Art: To be Beautiful is to be Understandable

“Visualization should be seen as a technology”.

Alberto Cairo, The Functional Art, p. 19

OK, I confess: The first time I read this section, part of me was thinking, “Isn’t this splitting hairs?” It sounds like “design” to me. I had to read it a few times to appreciate it and it made me think of a new-for-me classification of designer that John Maeda calls, “Computational Designer”.

Screenshot from his 2018 Design in Tech report

I believe visualization would be a necessary tool for a computational designer. In fact, Maeda says:

We’re in a golden age of data visualization and quant-qual science. The tools that are available today enable understanding — for those who want it.

John Maeda, Design in Tech, p. 30

“For those who want it”. It seems “those” means readers/viewers? If so, I disagree because tools don’t enable understanding. I seek to understand many things and there are tons of visualization out in the wild. Do I understand most? Not really.

Many are similar to the visualization from our last assignment. There is often too much presented all at once and in the case of “Running on (almost) empty”, I felt dizzy.

Perhaps that is the “classical designer” in me but the choices of color, sizes, typefaces, and more made the visualization feel like an impenetrable wall. Does it look cool? Sure, at first glance. However, before I could attempt to do a “question-based test” to understand it and attempt to redesign it (our assignment), I had to read it. I’m older. It proved immensely challenging and quite frustrating. If I didn’t have to analyze it, would I have read it? Probably not. Were certain graphic design “rules” ignored for the sake of looking cool? I don’t know. I’d love to hear how the design came about.

Bars to the Rescue

Bars and charts may not be sexy off-the-bat, but they do serve their purpose and can be cool in a bold and straightforward way or that classy, soft-spoken but profound kind-of-way. For example, this visualization from The Pew Research Center about the number of women in the 116th Congress is beautiful and informative.

This visualization is effective. The contrast is good. The colors don’t impede the readability. Type choice and sizes are also good. Is this beautiful? Yes. Is that personal preference? Perhaps. But as Professor Cairo states in The Truthful Art, “[W]hat matters isn’t if the objects of our creation are beautiful or not per se, but if they are experienced as beautiful by as many people as possible” (Chapter 2, p. 55). For me, I suppose beauty is about pleasure, a sort of emotional and mental calm or excitement.

Ultimately, it comes down to this simple fact: I can read the visualization. I can understand it. The more time I spend with it, the more interesting it becomes. What I love most is that it shows change. I knew we had more women elected in 2018 but this truly moved me. The designer — not the tools — help me understand there has been a tremendous positive change in my lifetime. Is it an award-winning, over-the moon visualization? Nope. It is memorable? Absolutely, and it gives me hope.

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